Just a year ago, Chea Srey Mou was working in a bustling garment factory to the loud, monotonous hum of over 100 sewing machines. With overtime she earned up to $80 every month, and after all her monthly expenditures, she still managed to support her 24-year-old brother, who is in his fourth year at university.
The garment industry ensured Ms Chea Srey Mou had food on the table and a roof over her head.
But three weeks before the Khmer New Year, she lost her job and now sells vegetables in the muddy throughways that surround her former workplace in the Canadia Industrial Park in Trapeang Thloeung village, just southwest of Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian garment sector has been badly hit by a culmination of factors, from the rise in the value of the dollar—which has made Cambodian exports more expensive—to the fall in demand from the US and Europe. According to the Ministry of Commerce, 51,000 jobs have been lost in the garment sector since September 2008.
And the numbers do not account for the thousands of workers who have seen their hours cut to part-time, significantly reducing their salaries, nor those affected by the fire that hit a large section of the Suntex Factory complex in Dangkao district earlier this month. The factory employed 5,000 people, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.
“My manager told us that there was nothing left for us to do,” said Ms Chea Srey Mou, 24, as she loaded her motorbike with a few heads of lettuce from the sodden marketplace in front of the Canadia Industrial Park. “I heard that they want to close all the factories here. And I don’t know why.”
Her situation, however, is not yet desperate. Ms Chea Srey Mou was given the equivalent of three months’ pay upon learning of her redundancy, allowing her to wait until after the Khmer New Year before having to look for a new job. But if jobs aren’t available, she says that she will be obliged to leave Phnom Penh with her brother and go back to Prey Veng province, where her family lives.
Ms Chea Srey Mou’s story is not uncommon.
Inside the Sing Guan Garment factory at the Canadia Industrial Park, the production lines have vanished. The rows of florescent lights are turned off over 105 of the 120 sewing machines the factory possesses.
On a recent visit earlier this month, Pheng Srey Oum, a 19-year-old garment worker from Kompong Cham province, told an apprehensive tale.
“Yes, I fear that I will lose my job soon. I hear of lots of factories closing down, and I’m scared that my factory will close down too,” she said, adding that her job has been reduced to part-time, earning just $50 a month, in contrast to the $145 a month she made a year ago.
According to a survey conducted last month by Twaro—the Asian and Pacific Regional Organization of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation—those living in Phnom Penh need at least $72 a month just to cover the most basic needs.
Miss Pheng Srey Oum explained that about 20 of her friends have had to go back to their families in the provinces and just as many scrape by working just one day a week.
“My parents are poor farmers, so I send back nearly all my salary to them. But now I have had to stop sending money to my family,” she said.
The waves of unemployed garment workers mean that those in Cambodia’s once rapidly expanding urbanized work force are having to reacquaint themselves with the conditions they experienced before the boom years.
According to figures from the UN Development Project, the garment industry employs 85 percent of the formal Cambodian workforce. And the most recent remarks coming from the government acknowledge that at least a seventh of them have been made redundant, casting doubt over efforts to improve the nation’s poverty levels.
“As people in these urban sectors lose their jobs, or see incomes contract, there will be less money sent back to rural areas,” said Tim Conway, poverty specialist at the World Bank in Cambodia. “Cambodian workers overseas may also be forced to return home. All of this will have an effect on living standards and poverty,” he said.
Despite the anguish that garment workers are expressing, some within the government believe the situation is not as dire as some predict.
“Even though the world economic crisis has had an effect, the situation in Cambodia is not that bad,” said Oum Mean, secretary of state for the Ministry of Labor. “Yes, some garment workers lost their jobs after factories were closed. But at the same time, just as many new factories have opened,” he said. “Some factories are complaining about the lack of staff,” Mr Oum Mean added.
In contrast, Cheat Khemara, a senior official at the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia said that the industry was feeling the effects of the world economic crisis. “At least 30 factories have closed and an additional 29 have suspended their operations,” he said, adding that he did not know when the situation would improve.
Han Chhunhy, stock manager at Sing Guan Garments, said that he was wary of the possibility that he would be forced to let many go, or pay his workers below the minimum wage in order to stay afloat. With a 70 percent cut in production so far this year, he says that the only way the company will survive is “with less staff.”
As Miss Pheng Sreng Oun commenced her afternoon task of attaching a series of glittery letters and sequins to the T-shirts coming from the sewing machines at Sing Guan, she said that she was concerned production at the factory could soon dry up.
“There is no more cotton being delivered to the factory any more. From 2005 to 2008 we had so many different styles of fabrics. Now there are only a few,” she said.